If you happened to venture out last Thursday evening and see a strange, slightly overweight woman wearing ‘snazzy’ leggings (does anyone even use that word any more?!), pacing up and down in a village hall car park with an anxious look on her face, then you might just have been lucky enough to catch yourself a rare glimpse of me about to take part in yet another new exercise.
That’s right, Mrs ‘I’m not a runner’ has only gone and signed up to a yoga for runners class!
But, before I go into details about why yoga is good for runners, why I would even dare to call myself a runner and the honest account of how I got on in class, let me give you a brief history of my dalliances with yoga.
Way back before I had kids, in fact we’re talking a good 12 years ago, when I was living with my now husband in West London and I was working for a top newspaper in London, life was pretty sweet. Yes, we had rent to pay, bills to sort, but money issues aside we had something money can’t buy…free time. We were in our twenties and life was all about working hard and playing harder, with most evenings and weekends spent socialising. So, fitness and healthy eating wasn’t exactly top of the agenda and back then there was far less emphasis on juice, kale, chia seeds, smoothie bowls etc etc. we literally just ate what didn’t have mould growing on it in the fridge.
In a bid to make up for this rather lacklustre diet I made sure I always walked to and from the various train and tube stations, which probably amounted to about 4 miles a day and I enrolled on a lunchtime yoga class. Now, even back then, yoga classes were the ‘in’ thing to be doing exercise-wise and it was all about what gear you were wearing and whether or not you had your own yoga mat and you can imagine how seriously the media types took it… particularly the fashion editors! The classes were held in a church near to the offices I worked in; if we were lucky we got to use the big airy hall that was ideally suited to yoga, on a not so lucky day we had to all cram into a pattern-carpeted church back room with dusty paintings of Jesus looking down on us…spiritual maybe but far from ideal.
From what I can remember, those classes were all about the ‘downward dog’, ‘zipping up’ our cores and I think on more than one occasion we were encouraged to ‘pee like a dog’, which prompted much stifled laughter and a few bottom toots from those that had mistakenly chosen to have beans on their jacket potato that lunchtime.
For me, those particular yoga classes served to clear my head, get me out of the office and keep my tummy toned, which in all honesty being pre-kids didn’t actually need much help.
So, let’s fast forward 12 years and take us back to that village hall car park.
Why and what am I doing here?!
You might remember that around about Easter I got cajoled into joining my local running group, runnyhoneys, and since then it turns out much to my immense disbelief that I can actually run. I’ve always tried to incorporate exercise into my lifestyle and before I started running I would regularly do HIIT and cardio boxing sessions at home, using weights for toning and strength, along with lots of walking and a few sessions on my exercise bike. However, if I’m being totally honest with myself, since doing the running I’ve found myself getting into quite a few habits…
- Running makes me hungry…I reason that because I’ve run I’ve ‘earnt’ a treat – cue biscuits (oops!)
- Since running, I have completely slacked on any other exercise so my muscle and tone has suffered (weights are deffo the way forward ladies)
- Running makes me tired – rather than go to bed I eat!
Not running’s fault at all, simply me needing to take a step back and work out a better training schedule that can include everything in balance. So, when head honey, Sue Browne, suggested I try out a session of yoga for runners, I figured this was exactly the kick up the backside I needed.
Yoga has various proven physical and mental advantages; from stress and pain relief through to aiding weight loss and improving muscle tone, literally anyone can do yoga to some degree. But before I tell you how I got on, let’s take a look at why yoga is so beneficial to runners…
The main advantage for runners who also practice yoga is the increase in strength it gives them and I’m talking all over body strength, not just the legs. Think about it for a minute…runners clearly rely on leg strength the most, but what about the upper body and their core? These areas are arguably just as important, because it’s the arms that will help pump you up that hill and let’s face it you need a strong core for pretty much everything!
Yoga helps condition the entire body and allows you to strengthen up weaker areas that you may not even realise need strengthening. For example, what about those tiny muscles in your feet? They in particular need to be strong, as these muscles absorb as much as 2 – 3 times your body weight every time they hit the ground. If you’re a road runner the impact as your feet hit the pavement is going to feel even greater, whilst if you’re a trail runner the uneven ground will move your feet and ankles in precarious positions. Yoga allows you to draw strength from learning how to balance properly and hold your muscles in the correct way. Proprioception is the awareness of where our limbs are in an open space, for example hopping across rocks and knowing the ground you’re landing on is uneven, hence adjusting your body and movement to compensate for this. Yoga improves our proprioception and this in turn reduces the risk of injury.
Most runners are programmed for speed; they want to improve on their last race, get their best split or beat their 5k time. Which is all well and good, it serves as a great guide to performance and instills competitiveness, but there are times when all of us simply need to slow down and yoga provides the perfect opportunity for this. Yoga teaches runners to put the brakes on and to become more mindful of how each part of their body moves and works.
One of the main reasons people cite for not giving yoga a go is that they are not flexible enough and whilst this may be the case, yoga is exactly the thing they could benefit from. Running is notorious for injuries and pain caused by the repetitive impact put upon certain muscles, primarily in the calves, ankles and feet. Yoga helps strengthen and loosen up the muscles and this also helps increase the range of motion in the adjoining joints. Muscles that are less tight, less stiff and that have a wider range of movement from strong supporting joints will see better running results.
Build Mental Endurance
I know from personal experience that when I hit a particularly tough point in a run my mind goes into complete overdrive and I give myself a seriously hard time. The demon in my head goes something a bit like this…
- There’s a lot, and I mean a LOT, of swearing – my brain demon is a complete and utter potty mouth!
- Self doubt creeps in – “you can’t do this”, “it’s too hard”, “you look silly”
- Temptation – “why don’t you just give up”, you’ve done enough”
If I’m running on my own, which might I add isn’t very often, the brain demon wins EVERY time! But, if I’m running in a group, he doesn’t stand a chance!
So, what am I getting at?
Basically, the mindfulness that goes hand in hand with practising yoga allows runners to strengthen their mind against their inner demons. If you can train yourself to ignore the demon, to push past that pain barrier and take on a positive mental attitude, then that is often the biggest hurdle you’ll have to overcome.
Breathing correctly is a big factor in running, yet we kind of take it for granted that our body will just do what it has to do; an automatic response if you like. Running will of course get you out of breath, but how you manage your breathing will impact on how well you perform. Yoga is very much centred around slow, deep breathing, which allows more oxygen to pass through to the internal organs and this helps increase energy levels. Most exercise depletes oxygen within the body and therefore uses up more energy stores, whereas yoga helps build up lung capacity and teaches the body to store oxygen more efficiently. When we run we often take short, shallow breaths, which only uses the very top portion of our lungs. Yogic breathing on the other hand uses the entire lung capacity and this is a lesson that can be taken away and practised whilst running. Greater lung capacity encourages more even breathing and therefore increases endurance and improves overall performance.
It’s all about good posture with yoga and I know I for one definitely need to improve my own. Gone are the days of walking round with books on top of your head, now it’s all about alignment, pulling up from your core and generally creating a better overall form that will translate into how you run. Yoga helps restore balance and symmetry within the body, which not only helps create a good running posture, but also helps improve posture in your day-to-day activities. Good posture decreases the risk of osteoporosis and will keep your body in a better state as you age.
What is it I can still do then?
Back to the title of this post then and a little look at some of the things I discovered during my yoga for runners class.
- I might be 37, but it seems I still struggle to tell my left from my right! OK, so I was trying to mirror the moves of the instructor in front of me and my brain went to mush when I heard the word ‘left’ but saw the move ‘right’, but there’s a case in point right there about how yoga improves mental awareness!
- It’s not just my thighs that are wobbly! I thought I was pretty good at balancing, turns out I’m not. When stood like a flamingo, whilst raising my arms above my head might seem relatively straight forward, in practice it appears it is not. Lesson learnt…my core needs some serious strengthening!
- I’ve always suspected this, but this class confirmed it for me…my arms are longer than my legs! Yep, that’s right I’m approximately 2 gene pools away from an orangutan. But hang on a sec, yes I may look slightly out of proportion, but I’m top of the class when it comes to touching my toes. Totally taking that as a positive thing!
- And lastly, the one thing I had no idea I could still do…I can still get my legs behind my head! Whoop whoop! In a circus freak, just call me ‘flexible Fred’ kinda way I can lie on the floor, lift my legs over my head and place my toes on the floor behind me. And that dear reader is exactly why my husband married me! No, but seriously all joking aside, if I am seriously that flexible then I am not giving myself enough credit for the physical achievements I have managed this year and to end on a positive note I need to start cutting myself some flack. Take that brain demon!!
I really enjoyed the yoga for runners class and was pleasantly surprised at how far yoga classes have come since I attended my first one 12 years ago. The moves felt very similar to some of the body conditioning moves I have learnt from training sessions I have done myself at home, e.g. the plank and it was great to take some time out to focus on my whole body. Max from White Mountain Yoga, who runs the class, clearly knows his stuff and he made the moves look effortless and far more graceful then I could ever hope to make them. I needn’t have looked so anxious at the beginning, because yes it was tough, but I did it, in fact I did all of it and didn’t make too much of a fool of myself.
So, if you’re a runner, whether you’ve only just started, or if you’re someone who’s been running for years, I urge you to think about taking up yoga alongside your running and take note of just how much your body thanks you for it.
I left the class feeling stretched, decluttered and just generally weightless and calm…well that was until a pigeon flew into my windscreen on the car journey home; not sure that helped my karmic value much!!